School Systems Viability Committee established

The Signal Mountain Town Council hears residents' opinions about the possibility of the town forming its own school system.

For years people on the mountain have talked about breaking away from the county school system, and a group conducting preliminary research last year concluded that launching a separate school district seemed economically feasible for the municipality and would benefit the mountain's schools academically.

A formal committee named Jan. 30 has been tasked with finding out if that's true.

After an hour of debate, the Signal Mountain Town Council appointed seven community members from a pool of 30 interested applicants to investigate the feasibility of breaking away from Hamilton County Schools.

Mayor Chris Howley said the appointed committee - Susan Speraw, John Friedl, Tom McCullough, Thomas Peterson, Charles Spencer, Amy Wakim and Melissa Wood - is diverse.

The council voted 4-1 to approve the committee members, with Councilman Dan Landrum voting against.

Landrum voiced concern about McCullough, who previously served as the superintendent of two small school districts and was a former Signal Mountain principal, bringing bias to the committee. Vice Mayor Dick Gee agreed.

"Undoubtedly, Tom McCullough is qualified," Gee said. "But I have to ask, is it possible for him to be totally, completely unbiased as he approaches this task because of his experience?"

Speek and Howley disagreed, saying McCullough's experience and knowledge will greatly benefit the committee's work.

When talking to McCullough, Speek said he seemed neutral on the issue and eager to help the community answer questions about creating a new district.

Of those named to the committee, McCullough was the only person to mark on his application that he was in favor of the mountain forming its own school district. The other six candidates marked "neutral." Out of the 30 applicants, just three stated they were against the mountain creating a separate district, and none of them were named to the committee.

Wakim's appointment was also the subject of debate, as she was heavily involved in compiling last year's preliminary research on breaking away from Hamilton County Schools.

Gee and Landrum said each member of the committee should be looking at the information with a fresh perspective, and argued Wakim should not be on the committee but just an adviser.

Howley and Speek argued that she was needed because of her understanding of finance and the amount of work she's already done looking at the numbers.

"If she's not on [the committee] we are going to lose a lot of work and a lot of time," Howley said.

If the town does decide to form its own district, residents would have to vote to establish it, which would involve creating a separate school board and hiring a superintendent to oversee the three schools within town limits, which about 2,500 students attend.

The schools - Signal Mountain Middle/High, Thrasher Elementary and Nolan Elementary - would receive state and county per-pupil allocations, meaning Hamilton County Schools would receive less money because of a decrease in enrollment, according to the state.

"What we are asking this committee to do is very complicated and very complex and can have very strong implications for our town," said Speek.